Church Life – Respect (Part 2)

SAMSUNG

1 Timothy 5:1-2

Never speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him respectfully as you would to your own father. Talk to younger men as you would to your own brothers. Treat older women as you would your mother, and treat younger women with all purity as you would your own sisters (NLT).

Our subject is the respect that we ought to demonstrate to others in Christ. We are all children in the family of God the Father, and he wants us to esteem one another highly. The Holy Spirit does not give us a lofty ideal, but he directs us in specific relationships. The apostle Paul gave his close associate Timothy direction about how to deliver proper rebuke to other members of a local church. Consider 2 Timothy 4:2: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction (NIV). The fact that Timothy was a minister does not hinder the application of the text to all in the church in their mutual relations, because Timothy was to function as an example to others (4:12). Paul uses a tension-filled time, the need to correct others, as a paradigm for our interactions with each other. Every follower of Christ will have occasion to confront others in our local spiritual family, and the Lord expects us to do it. I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another (Romans 15:14 NIV).

In the church, we should correct, rebuke, and encourage (don’t ignore the need to encourage!) four groups: older men, younger men, older women, and younger women. We must speak in a proper way as we do any of the three actions, but there is special need for caution when the action is rebuke. It is too easy to adopt a harsh tone that harms the person and our relationship with him or her. We ought not to rebuke because we feel frustrated with the person. Neither should we rebuke because we assume we are spiritually or personally superior to the person. We must remember that we are one in Jesus Christ and that each one is deeply loved by the Lord.

In our culture, older people are demeaned, devalued, and disrespected. The Holy Spirit tells us to honor older people. Older men and women are precious to the Lord. We must regard them as our fathers and mothers. This requires us to speak with them lovingly, kindly, patiently, and gently. In other words, we must speak according to the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). This is true spirituality. Older people are valued by God, and we must also value them by respect in our thoughts, attitudes, actions and words toward them. God requires us to honor our parents. Older people in our churches should receive the same kind of honor.

Younger men and women are to be treated as brothers and sisters. Spiritual experience provides many benefits, but among them is not a know-it-all attitude that can’t keep its mouth shut. Neither is stubbornness spiritual. Neither antiquity or being on the cutting edge give value to ideas and ways of doing things. Wisdom and truth provide value. We must understand the times in which we live, and younger people can have a better grasp on what’s happening now and where the future is headed. This does not mean that they are automatically right, but it strongly suggests that we ought to listen. A rebuke of younger people demands that we hear them and attempt to understand their situation. It involves patient explanation of godliness and true holiness.

The Holy Spirit values a family attitude. He wants us to do everything, including the hard things like correction and rebuke as brothers and sisters in the Lord. He wants us to prize the family relationship of the people of God. A church is not a business, a club, or an institution, and so it should not be run like a business, a club, or an institution. This Sunday when you are in church, take time to look around at others. They are your family. Take steps to reach out to others as brothers and sisters. Do you know them, their needs and struggles, and what causes them sorrow and joy? Invite them over to share in a family manner. Open your hearts to each other. Listen and feel and sympathize. Laugh and cry. Love.

Grace and peace, David

Church Life – Respect

1 Timothy 5:1-2

Never speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him respectfully as you would to your own father. Talk to younger men as you would to your own brothers. Treat older women as you would your mother, and treat younger women with all purity as you would your own sisters (NLT).

Years ago when I was a pastor in upstate New York, one of the men of the church gave me a study Bible. He frankly confessed that he had used it for a while and didn’t like it. That’s why he gave it to me. (I appreciated his candor, but it made me wonder why you would give your pastor something you yourself didn’t like. I suppose every pastor can provide stories of similar gifts.)

I must admit that I was underwhelmed by the gift, and I put it aside. A few years passed and I moved to Pennsylvania. The binding of the Bible I had used for notes broke, and so I picked up the long unused study Bible to use it for note taking. (I usually use an unmarked Bible for preaching, since it’s easier to read. I think a preacher should have an open Bible with him during the message.) Now the binding on that study Bible is broken, and I mainly use it for reference.

I tell that story to tell this. A question came up in our Sunday morning meeting about the section headings in Bibles. They were added by the translators to help us easily find places in the text, and were not intended to be guides of interpretation. For that, I am glad. A few years ago, we focused on 1 Timothy at a men’s retreat. In preparation for that, I had read and reread 1 Timothy, and I had marked it up somewhat with colored pencils and short notes. The section heading above our text was “Advice About Widows, Elders and Slaves”. Below it I had written, “The church as a family.” In another study Bible during another study, I wrote “Family attitude toward others in the church”.  I think that presents the idea of the section more comprehensively. Yes, it does talk about widows, elders, and slaves, but in our religious culture’s individualistic and institutional views of the church, we miss the idea of the church as a family. The local church in the New Testament is much more than sitting in a building with some people that might also worship there.

Too often Christian people fail to think of others in the church as our family. Perhaps they might be thought of as friends, but not family. Church members know that they ought to be outwardly nice and even pitch in to provide meals and presents at bridal and baby showers. But being nice is not the same as being family. To be a family requires gut-level acceptance, sympathy, and care… and respect.

We have lost a sense of the importance of respect in our spiritual and physical families. In the latter, spouses do not respect each other, children do not respect their parents, and parents do not respect their children either, for that matter. People have traded off respect in relationships for items of far less value, such as “personal space”. Instead of welcoming aunts and uncles, cousins and all the rest, people distance themselves from each other. But physical families are not today’s topic.

Our text in 1 Timothy requires respect to every person on every level of the spiritual family. This respect starts by vital recognition of each person as in Christ, as members of his body, and so of members of each other. A vital, spiritual union binds us together. Since we are in Christ, we are in the Father’s family as adult sons and daughters of God. Together we form a royal priesthood and are citizens in the Kingdom of God’s Son. So then, we must have gospel-formed opinions of each other. When we see the dignity of our shared position in Christ, we will look at each other with eyes filled with respect and embrace each other as fellow members of God’s family. This foundational bond will enable us to overcome all worldly distinctions, like ethnicity, educational attainments, economic levels, personality differences, and so forth. We will walk a new path together as family members in Christ, and we thus respect each other. When we respect one another, we will begin to reach out to each other in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT).

Do not hold yourself back from your brothers and sisters in Christ. They need your love, and you need theirs!

Grace and peace, David

Our Conduct in Church

1 Timothy 3:14-15

I am writing these things to you now, even though I hope to be with you soon, so that if I am delayed, you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God. This is the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth (NLT).

The Bible is God’s word; it is God’s voice to us, to people. It speaks about God and mankind. God delivered it to us in human language and in human circumstances. These circumstances provided opportunities to talk to his people through all generations. In this letter, the Spirit spoke concerning our conduct in the church. As always, church in the New Testament does not mean “in a building” but “in our relationships with God and his people”, since “church” means “assembly” or “gathering” or “congregation”.

The great purpose, then, is to present proper conduct with God and his people. First Timothy is not about church government or rules for church order. It concerns how you and I are to share life together and with God. What makes this letter so volatile in the contemporary church is the obsession of many with themselves and their opinions rather than believing submission to what the Spirit plainly said through the apostle. The same self-obsession leads many to ignore the family values of life together in the church. (Read especially chapter five.) This letter deserves fresh, multiple readings of its text, putting aside study Bibles, commentaries, and church manuals, until we have listened together to the text, and have attained a submissive attitude toward its teaching.

As we listen humbly, we will hear teaching about what the church is. As has often been said in various forms, we must know what we are in Christ before we can practice life in Christ. In our text, we discover three ideas about the church.

  • We are the household of God. We are God’s family. He is the Father, we his children. He is the leader and sets the values, ideas, aims, mission, attitudes, and kindred spirit of his family. He tells us how we are to treat each other (5:1-2). Matters like faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness have a high priority in God’s household (6:11; cf. 1:4-5). The Father wants all to sense that such gospel-formed attitudes and actions are to be felt and experienced by all.
  • We are the assembly of the living God. He is life itself, and we are alive in Christ with him. The church is a gathering of life, of spiritually alive people with the living God. The church is organic by nature, not institutional. It is people sharing life, not trying to lead a successful religious business. Life is valued more than profit or loss. Since we live in this fallen world and still sin, God and we know that this life will be messy and challenging, but it remains life shared with the living God.
  • We guard the word; we are the pillar and foundation of the truth. We firmly hold to its teachings, passing them from person to person, and from generation to generation. Truth matters because we know it is the way of salvation to all the people groups of the earth (2:4). We also proclaim the truth to others. We use it to evangelize or “fish for people” (Mark 1:15). To put it this way, we know our mission and how to accomplish it with the help of the Holy Spirit.

This weekend as you meet with God’s people, seek to imbibe and to spread these values. Listen to your Father’s voice, follow the Father’s Son, and worship by the Father’s Spirit. Enjoy the reality that you are in the assembly of the living God! Share his love with others in his family.

Grace and peace, David

Plans and Contingency Plans

1 Timothy 3:14-15a

I am writing these things to you now, even though I hope to be with you soon, so that if I am delayed, you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God (NLT).

God our Father wants us to live as adult sons and daughters of God. He has put us into union with Christ, has given us the Spirit and the word of God, has joined us to others in Christ, has given us freedom in Christ to serve him for his glory, and he has told us our mission in this world. Our Father expects us to make proper use of all these gifts in our journey through this world. While we cannot make absolute plans (only God can do that), he does expect us to make wise plans and to carry out them out wisely. We cannot accomplish goals unless we plan how to achieve them. As has been said, “If you aim at nothing, you will probably hit it.”

The apostle Paul made plans for his ministry. He was commissioned by the Lord to serve him (Acts 26:16-18), and to do everything he had to plan; for example, he planned for the Gentile churches to give a sizable financial gift to their Jewish brothers and sisters. It took years to carry out that plan, but it did happen. At other times, he planned to visit people, but he was unable to do what he planned (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:12-2:4).

In our text, Paul wrote to Timothy about a visit he wanted to make to Ephesus (cf. 1:3). In these few words, we can hear Paul speak about his plans.

  • When he wrote Timothy, he spoke in terms of what he hoped to do. He wanted to be with his friend and coworker. If Paul was with him, there were many things that they could discuss in detail about the current situation in the Ephesian church and the best way to minister in those circumstances. A personal visit would also provide face-to-face encouragement. It is good to talk with our friends in difficult situations. Paul hoped for an ideal outcome.
  • Yet Paul knew he might be delayed. Here is one of the mysteries of the giving of the word of God to us. The Spirit would give direct information and instruction about many things, but he did not give knowledge about everything. Paul wanted to visit, but he didn’t know whether or not his visit would be delayed. The inspiration of the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit guaranteed that the finished written product would be God’s word, but it did not convey extraneous information to the human writer. Paul could give teaching about elders and ministers earlier in the chapter, but he couldn’t tell Timothy for sure when he could come. James wrote that we must have a humble before God attitude about our plans (James 4:13-15).
  • What Paul wrote was his contingency plan, if he was delayed. Timothy needed help immediately, but Paul wasn’t sure he could provide it personally. So, he did the next best thing with the technology available to him. (Paul and Timothy did not have cellphones or the internet.) But his letter was in God’s plan part of the word of God that we need. God used a human weakness for his glory and our good.

So then, let us make wise plans, plans to help and encourage others. But let us not be discouraged if we are hindered in our plans. This requires faith in God. But let us also make contingency plans, in case roadblocks get in the way. Don’t get downhearted; God might be doing something bigger and better through our second choice.

Grace and peace, David

The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Part Nine)

IMG_4158John 3:6

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (ESV).

Last in our series of articles about the Holy Spirit, we considered from the Scriptures our need of the Holy Spirit’s work. We saw that it was necessary to lift us from a focus on religious performance to a proper evaluation of Jesus Christ as Lord. This is necessary, because on the most basic level of our being, humans naturally are dead in sin. We saw five characteristics of spiritual deadness, and how that necessarily involves spiritual inability: the eight spiritual actions that fallen, natural humans cannot do.

If that was all that the Bible said, we should all weep in despair. But God also tells us in his word that there is good news. What we cannot do for salvation, God has done in Christ, and the Holy Spirit has been sent to apply the benefits of Christ’s saving work to his people. In other words, what we must now come to understand is regeneration or the effective grace of the Holy Spirit. The Father planned salvation, the Son purchased it, but it is the Holy Spirit who applies what was planned and purchased to our hearts.

The doctrine of regeneration is always important to the church. Listen to the following words of Thomas Goodwin, president of Magdalen College, Oxford University, spoken in the early 1650s.

“Let us see…this necessity of the new birth.  We are fallen into times in which the thing and doctrine of it is forgotten and laid aside, in which there are multitudes of professors, but few converts, many that seem to walk in the way to life, that never came in at the strait gate.  There is a zeal amongst us to advance this or that reformation in religion, and it hath been all the cry.  But, my brethren, where is regeneration called for or regarded?  We have seen the greatest outward alterations that ever were in any age, kingdoms turned and converted into commonwealths, the power of heaven and earth shaken: but men, although they turn this way and that, from this or that way, from this opinion to that, yet their hearts generally turn upon the same hinges they were hung on when they came into the world.  In this University of Oxford we have had puttings out and puttings in, but where is putting off of the old nature and putting on the new?  Where do we hear (as we had wont) of souls carrying home the Holy Ghost from sermons, of their being changed and altered, and made new, and of students running home weeping to their studies, crying out, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’  This was heretofore a wonted [familiar] cry.  Conversion is the only standing miracle in the church, but I may truly say these miracles are well nigh ceased; we hear of few of them” (Thomas Goodwin, The Work of the Holy Spirit in Our Salvation, p. 157). With slight modification, we could write the same words today. We need to have the same burden again. As Jesus said, “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’”

What is the new birth from above? First of all, it involves a washing and renewal. He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). When the Holy Spirit enters a human heart to cause the new birth, he encounters a cesspool of corruption that is deeply offensive to him. For this reason, he immediately performs a washing of the soul to remove the pollution of sin he encounters. At the same time, he renews the heart or causes spiritual life to begin. Where sin once reigned in death, now grace reigns in righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:21). We might say that this corrects our negative condition, but what of a change in the positive sense? This the Spirit of God also produces in the new birth. Next time, we will consider the newness of life he creates.

Grace and peace, David

The Circus Is Closing

DSCN0617Luke 9:57-62

When I read the newspaper yesterday, I was surprised to hear that after 146 years Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus will close its show forever on May 21. A circus used to be a big deal in entertainment. I remember that a small Ringling circus used to travel through our area in Ohio, and I went to see it once. The only time I was ever at the greatest show on earth was when Sharon’s cousin took our family when our children were young. An era of entertainment has closed. My granddaughter will not be able to see a circus. She and others will not know the meaning of a phrase like “someone ran off to join the circus.”

Regardless of any sentimental regrets people might have about that circus closing, there is another circus that I wish would close as soon as possible. That is the circus held every Sunday in American churches. This past week I received a postcard that a new circus, oops, I mean “church”, is opening nearby. It proudly proclaimed that it would feature a really good band. If that won’t bring in religious consumers shopping for spiritual entertainment, then what will? Remove the bands and children’s programs from most churches and you will have removed the main reasons for the assumed success of those churches. Replace the inspirational talk by the “lead pastor” with sound, Biblical teaching, and most of the rest of the crowd will disappear also.

The worship and mission of churches in America is far removed from the Lord Jesus Christ. Listen to how he interacted with some who wanted to be his disciples (learners). As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62 ESV).

The Lord Christ was not desperately gathering people. He did not seek a loose attachment to him. He certainly did not offer entertainment. Observe how he rebuffed certain types of supposed followers.

  • Jesus did not accept people who merely said that they would follow him, even if their words appeared to commit to him (9:57-58). He taught that the life of faith was not about personal convenience. It required sacrifice. The “circus church” allows people to attend when convenient; it strives to put on a good enough show that people won’t find it convenient to miss.
  • Jesus did not accept people who failed to commit to his supremacy (9:59-60). He demanded first place above other relationships. The “circus church” excuses people for activities with family and friends, but hopes that they can convince them to join the weekly shows, at least occasionally. Everyone wants high attendance for Christmas and Easter programs.
  • Jesus did not accept people who looked for other opportunities (9:61-62). He demanded firm commitment. The “circus church” lets people play around, trying to keep them interested in attending weekend programs, while giving them a pass on godly behavior and commitment to Christ.

Let me stress that I don’t want churches to close. But I pray that they will shut down the circus and return to Jesus Christ and his mission. I doubt this will happen, because they know that they will lose many who attend their weekly religious entertainment programs. The local leaders have counted the cost of their church following Christ and do not want to endure it, or they do not want to follow the Lord themselves.

Each one of us ought to examine ourselves. Do I really want to follow Christ on his mission of being a disciple myself and making disciples? Or do I merely want some weekend religious entertainment. It’s time to end the circus and to begin discipleship.

Grace and peace, David

Sharing Your Life with God

IMG_0064 (2)Psalm 17:3-5

You have tried my heart, you have visited me by night, you have tested me, and you will find nothing; I have purposed that my mouth will not transgress. With regard to the works of man, by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent. My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped (ESV).

One of the basics about the Christian life is that we have fellowship with God; we share our lives with God. Indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3c ESV). The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Corinthians 13:14 ESV). We know this, yet I think that we don’t do well in actually sharing our lives with the Lord. Perhaps part of the problem is that we don’t know how. Yes, we we’ve been taught how to have devotions, how to pray, how to read the Bible, how to participate in a public worship service, how to witness, and perhaps how to meditate and how to listen to a sermon. I am not for a moment downplaying the importance of such skills. I would only say that praying, reading, and so on should not be mechanical or ritualistic. But that is not the concern of this article.

Let’s think on a larger level than the particulars. Let’s think about sharing our life, because a passion for one area can easily “eat up” the others. For this, we need a model or example. The Spirit has given us one in David, the man after God’s heart. Our text has several ideas about sharing one’s life with God.

  • David knew that God was directly involved with him. He did not live like God was far off. He knew that the Lord visited him by night. As Paul said, “God is actually not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27 ESV). God is near, close to us, so that we can share our lives with him. God tests us; this might sound scary, until you remember that God is your Father and loves you. The testing is for your benefit.
  • David knew the importance of the heart, the inner person. This takes us off the stage of attempting to impress God by what we do. He knows our motives and attitudes and emotions. David, like the writer of Hebrews knew that he stood naked before God. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:13 ESV). To share life with God, we must want this openness. You can’t share, if you’re trying to hide or avoid.
  • David desired to live godly. God is the Holy One, and to share our lives with him, we must purpose to live in conformity with who God is. Our words come from our hearts (Matthew 12:34), and so David sought comprehensive godliness. To share one’s life with God does not simply happen. It requires godly desires that we put into practice. These come from our union with Christ by the Spirit’s help. God wants us to want his way of life.
  • David realized that he needed instruction from God’s word. He listened to the word of your lips and his steps held fast to your paths. Notice the personal awareness: the repeated your. As he listened to the word and meditated on it, he made choices to live for God. To say it another way, God was his personal coach or mentor. There is a freeness of exchange between a coach and his athlete. For example, “Here is the correct form you need to make a layup.” A wise athlete will seek feedback from his coach about his or her progress in achieving that form.
  • David kept focused on the Lord. He avoided some ways, and held fast to others. The writer of Hebrews urges us to keep our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). To share life with God, we must, so to speak, stay close to where he is and avoid where he isn’t. A basketball team is told to put on a full court press. Each player must know where the coach wants them to be and what to do in various contingencies. “You’re responsible for that area of the court.” The players must keep their heads in the game. We can’t share our lives with God if we “check out”. God is “on the court” with us, and we discuss with him how his story is opening up in our lives.

One more thing: David wasn’t talking theory. This was his life. He shared life with God among other people who had no desire to do so. He made the daily choices necessary to be with God and to interact with him about his life. Do we?

Grace and peace, David

Up to This Point (Part Two)

dscn38511 Samuel 7:2-13

When we return to the Lord, it is easy to expect a free pass from difficulty for a time. We think, “Now that God is for me (Romans 8:31), life will be easy.” Part of the problem is a muddled evangelistic presentation that makes promises that God does not. Another source is that self-centeredness is the attitude of the times. We suppose we have denied ourselves (Mark 8:34), when we have only taken the initial step of a lifelong journey in self-denial. God does not call us to a life of ease. Salvation involves service of the living God (1 Thessalonians 1:9). To be saved is not to be given assurance of party time in this world (John 16:33).

From a Biblical perspective, then, we can understand that after a revival, we might experience crisis (7:7-11). The enemies of God and his people are always seeking opportunities (7:7). From their point of view, the Philistines probably sensed danger in the religious assembly of Israel. The children of evil are shrewd in their observations. In our day, they know that a renewed church would upset their evil plans, so they strike constantly at us. Notice carefully that this crisis came when the people were returning to the Lord. How often evil seems to accompany what is good. God does not automatically make trouble disappear when we repent. He uses troubles to give us occasion to exercise our renewed faith. A change of mind on your part does not require God to dissolve all your troubles in an instant. He has an eternal plan. If you find yourself asking, “Then why bother to repent?” perhaps you should consider that you have not yet changed your mind. Your eternal relationship with God is the primary issue, not the disappearance of your temporary crisis.

So then, the crisis became an opportunity to express their faith in God (7:8). They sought the means of prayer in old covenant fashion, looking to a mediator like Samuel or Moses on other occasions. In the new covenant, our only mediator is the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). The key was that they relied on the Lord to rescue them. When we stop saying, “How are we going to handle this problem?” and pray and ask, “Lord, we trust you to handle this problem”, then we have made spiritual progress.

God helped his people (7:9-11). He helped his people while the old covenant sacrifice was being offered. God didn’t wait until the ritual was finished. God is free to act when he pleases. God used an extraordinary means—thunder. If you’ve ever lived around the Great Lakes in the summer, you know how awesome thunder can be! When God himself pushed the “thunder” button to rout an army, it must have been spectacular! How easily are the most supposedly bold people overwhelmed by lightning and thunder or ice and snow! All scoffers can try jousting with hurricanes and tornadoes, if they please. The men of Israel had only to do a mop-up operation. Where did they get their weapons? There were probably many to pick up that the Philistines had thrown down in their panic.

Hope was the outcome (7:12-13). They looked at the past. It is wise to stop and remember what God has done. Hopefully, you concluded last year by taking time to thank God for all the benefits he gave you in 2016. It is wise to be God-focused in our remembrances. “Thus far has the Lord helped us.” We need to approach our every gathering with Christ’s followers as being “in the presence of God”. This rejuvenates all our worship.

God’s past work induced them to look toward the future. The stone acted as a means to keep on recalling how God had helped them to this point. I have seen God help Sharon and I year after year. Up to this point, we can say, “Thus far has the Lord helped us.” My brothers and sisters in Christ, since God has helped us up to this point, year after year, don’t you think he is able to help us again in 2017? God’s faithfulness in the past and present is a sign pointing to his help in the future. God has more grace and greater grace to lavish upon us!

So join with me! Let us joyfully raise up a figurative Ebenezer, a stone of help, as we begin 2017! Let us have hope in God, for we will still praise him together! Let us confidently expect the exceeding riches of God’s sovereign grace to be poured out on us, his dearly loved people. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

Grace and peace, David

Up to This Point (Part One)

img_0105-21 Samuel 7:2-13

Then all the people of Israel turned back to the Lord (7:2 NIV).

Back in the days when we lived where there was sufficient snow cover, Sharon and I would ski, cross-country style. One place we skied was in the Charleston State Forest, which had twenty some miles of ski trails cut in it. In the north section in one area, the trail ran through a long avenue of pine trees. With a couple of feet of snow on the ground, it was a beautiful sight. We would stop at different points to admire the scene.

Picture in your mind a long avenue of evergreen trees. You might be skiing or walking or driving down it. As you travel down this green avenue, you stop along it to admire the view. You look back to what you have already traveled, and are grateful for what you have seen. Your stopping point seems calm and peaceful, and you are glad. Then you turn to look forward. New views await, but some parts look challenging. You think, “The trail goes up, so the way will be harder, but then the view might be better!” And you move on. Our walk with God is similar. Let us look at a passage to help us in this matter.

Our spiritual journey with God involves our repentance (7:2-6). For twenty years, the ark of the covenant had been separated from the tabernacle. Worship of God had been disrupted. No one seemed to care. Unexpectedly, the hearts of God’s people turned back to the Lord (7:2). It was a general revival. Behind this was the Holy Spirit. Nothing else explains this situation. He stirs people’s hearts, so that they are dissatisfied and feel that God is missing in their lives. His action causes the people to sorrow. “Life is not right; we need the living God among us. How can we return to God?” Compare Psalm 42:2-4. People in our time are dissatisfied, though they are far from thinking that the problem is the absence of God. “Lostness” gnaws at their souls, as they seek hope in a new year. But they suppress the knowledge of God. If you understand, weep for our generation!

Into this dark setting, God sent Samuel to preach (7:3). He recognized what was happening and seized the opportunity to give them hope. Consider four elements of his preaching:

  • Samuel told them to turn away from their false gods. The Baals and Ashtoreths (notice that both are in the plural, 7:4) were Canaanite fertility gods and goddesses. As you need not imagine, the worship of them was vile and degrading. Yes, they knew about sexual immorality in ancient times and were sophisticated enough to make it part of worship. And you thought times were bad now! Don’t be surprised at the next step of debauchery you hear of. Humanity has already been there.
  • Samuel told them to make it their business to return to the Lord. Interestingly, to return to the Lord means to serve him, which is also a very new covenant concept (1 Thessalonians 1:9). A true return to the Lord makes us recover a proper Creator/creature relationship and a desire to do what pleases God.
  • Samuel told them that they must be wholly for God: “serve him only”. The fashion of ancient times and postmodern times is pluralism. Hmm, we have advanced to the past! But true Christianity is exclusive. Whatever others may do, we affirm the reality of one true God (Ephesians 4:6).
  • Samuel told them that this was the only sure way to recovery. They had lived for years in oppression, but God was not about to help unless they really repented.

This is always unpopular preaching. It upsets people. But if you’ve ever remodeled, you know that you usually must rip out rotten material and make a mess to improve the situation. Most people only want to be happy, today and everyday, with no interruptions. Sadly, they sacrifice eternal joy for temporary happiness.

We can detect the fruits of true repentance (7:4-6).

  • Their change of mind caused them to put away their false gods. They made a clean, radical break. There is a time to burn the bridges to hinder any return to your old way of life. Do you have any bridges you need to burn right now? If there are items you know you need to get rid of, throw them in the trash today. Change comes from a believing heart, but it expresses itself in the fruits of repentance.
  • They acknowledged God in their public assembly. Fasting and pouring out water were used on various occasions in old covenant times to illustrate zeal and consciousness of the need for cleansing.
  • They confessed their sin. “We have sinned against the Lord.” They stated their sin in its true colors; it was against the Lord.

The Lord God encourages us to walk with him this year. The path will look difficult, but with his Spirit and help, we can overcome the challenges that will appear. Let’s learn from this incident in the life of God’s people.

Grace and peace, David

A Reminder to All Disciples

img_0011-22 Timothy 1:13

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus (NIV).

Every believer is on a mission, which is to follow the Lord Jesus and learn how to fish for people (Mark 1:17). An immediate question is, “How does this happen?” From my experience in fishing for fish, I observed that you must be where the fish are: beside or on a body of water. I used to practice casting in my backyard, but there was no water, and there were no fish to catch. So then, we must be where people are to catch people. That should be obvious, but it seems many Christians expect to catch fish in a Sunday worship service. But few people care to jump into that pond to be caught.

Since our mission is not to make people religious but followers of Jesus Christ, we need to have the right kind of bait. You see, you cannot catch people to follow Christ, unless you follow him first. This also ought to be obvious, but many settle for trying to get people to sit in a church building, to participate in a church activity, and oh, to put money in the offering plates. After they pick up the lingo, get baptized, and join the church, the religious mission is accomplished. Hurray! But that is not what Christ or the Holy Spirit sets forth in our text. It tells us that we must keep or follow (ESV) or hold on to (HCSB) what we have heard. A follower is an attentive listener to Jesus and to those who teach his words. We must have the character of a Christ follower to catch people to follow Christ. Notice the brief reminder that Paul gave to Timothy and to all who read this letter.

  • We start with what we have been taught in God’s word. This is the pattern of sound teaching. The Bible, whether in its narrative or commentary sections, provides a formative pattern for us. It gives us a perspective on life and how to act as adult sons and daughters of God in life’s situations. For example, as God led the church through times of opposition (Acts 4 & 12), the Spirit made clear that the church responded to the opposition by prayer. Too often modern Christians respond by watching a movie about prayer, saying the movie was tremendous, and then not praying. But I digress…. First Peter was not written to give material for Christians to huddle in a living room and talk about their feelings about what Peter wrote. It was written to tell Christians scattered how to live for God’s glory through Christ. It is a formative pattern for us.
  • We keep the teaching with faith and love. Our Father in heaven does not wish our heads merely to be filled with a collection of facts. He wants them lived out in a specified way. Our life is to be a life of faith, of dependence, of commitment to God’s all-ability and promises. Faith often will not make sense in a self-centered world where people assume they are fixers. Love also is essential. I suppose every follower of Christ hears this early on (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). But we cannot fish for people unless we love people. Love makes us abandon our comfort, and faith our self-reliance. Neither option is palatable unless a person has truly repented and believed. The follower of Christ delights in being formed in faith and love.
  • These graces happen in Christ Jesus. Everything in life for the follower of Christ is focused on or built on the Lord. We believe in Christ and through him. We love because Christ first loved us and then love through his love. Faith and love happen by a dynamic relationship with the Lord. Then, when someone asks, “Why did you help me like you just did?” we have the right and humble response, “I did that because of Jesus Christ.”

Keep the pattern, and go fish for people!

Grace and peace, David